- This feature was first published in RAIL 840 (November 22-December 5 2017). It is available digitally on Android and iPad.
In 2011, a new road opened from Spalding in Lincolnshire to the outskirts of Peterborough, providing a much-needed diversion from the inadequate road via Crowland and Cowbit. This new road dissected the trackbed of the old Spalding to March railway that had closed on November 27 1982, and in doing so opened up some new views of the old line.
Heading south towards Cowbit (once the locals have stopped laughing at you for calling it ‘Cow-bit’, they will tell you that it is actually pronounced ‘Cubbit’), if you look to your left you’ll see that the signalpost for the Up distant still stands. Thirty-five years since it last signalled a train, and bereft of arms, it serves as a reminder that there was once a railway here. Look to the right and you can just about make out a Down signalpost as well.
In fact, there are many railway relics on this line. If there was ever a TV programme called something like the Railway Detectives (probably scheduled for 1800 on a Sunday on BBC2, and inevitably hosted by Tony Robinson or Mark Williams), which visited old closed railway lines looking for historical artefacts from its previous use, then March to Spalding really ought to be the opening show.
Few closed lines are as rich in remnants of the railway as this line. That might be because the 19.75-mile route ‘only’ closed in 1982, and was not part of the Beeching cuts. Maybe recovery of materials and demolition of infrastructure was not high on a then cash-strapped BR’s list of priorities. Maybe no one was overly bothered on clearing away the debris.
The line was opened by the Great Northern Railway in 1867. It amalgamated with the Great Eastern Railway in 1882 and was thereafter known as the ‘Joint Line’. At the 1923 Grouping it became part of the London and North Eastern Railway, and then British Railways from 1948.
There were intermediate stations at Cowbit (3.5miles from Spalding), Postland (7.25), French Drove (later named French Drove & Gedney Hill, 10.25), Murrow (13.25) and Guyhirne (16). In later days, the approach to March (19.75) passed the massive Whitemoor marshalling yard, once the biggest in the UK.
The rundown of the line had started long before Beeching came to do his worst. Murrow station closed to passengers on September 27 1948, followed by Guyhirne five years later on October 5 1953. With the advent of the car, combined with this being a sparsely populated part of Lincolnshire, the stations at Cowbit, Postland and French Drove & Gedney Hill lost their passenger services on September 11 1961.
Despite the closure of the stations, the line retained a passenger service serving Spalding and March - as part of trains typically running from Cambridge to Lincoln or Doncaster. These were worked by diesel multiple units.
And the Joint Line came to life on Summer Saturdays, when holiday trains to Great Yarmouth would use the route to avoid the busy East Coast Main Line. Trains from Derby, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle would be routed via Sleaford and Spalding, then take the line to March to head into East Anglia. Some of these trains would change locomotives at Grassmoor, by Whitemoor Yard.
The line provided a useful means to move freight trains, especially those from the ports of East Anglia to the North East, keeping them away from the East Coast Main Line (ECML). This was especially useful for the long (and slow) unfitted freight trains which ran at 45mph, 35mph or even 25mph, and were hauled by slow locomotives such as Class 20s, ‘31s’, ‘37s’ and ‘40s’. This was to become a big issue shortly after the line closed.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, BR was under great pressure as the country suffered a major recession. It was also in desperate need of modernising (the last attempt in the 1950s had been badly thought out), with the use of vacuum brakes and steam heating which were archaic compared with electric train heating and air brakes.
As BR slowly eliminated these trains, so the demand for the line decreased. The passenger service was sparsely used, and next to useless anyway because of the times of trains, and because few people needed to travel directly between the two towns.
But there were two other (major) factors in hastening the line’s closure. Firstly, the line was incredibly antiquated. Because it was on the edge of the Fens, it was very flat - this meant numerous level crossings, many of them still protected by old gates which were closed and opened manually and so required crossing keepers. The line was still a haven of semaphore signals, with the associated signal boxes - and so staff. In short, staffing the line was hugely expensive for the level of traffic.
However, modernising the line was costed at £4 million - about £10m in today’s money. It was just not viable for the level (and nature) of traffic the line supported. Trains could still run between Spalding and March, but they would have to go the slightly longer way round via Peterborough - a distance of 31.5 miles.
The downside was passengers had their 25-minute journey upped to over an hour, with a change at Peterborough of 20-plus minutes. However, not many people actually wanted to travel between March and Spalding anyway, so it only inconvenienced a few poor souls who did.
Some upgrading had been undertaken in the mid-1970s, with automatic half-barriers on a handful of the level crossings and even some sections of long-welded rail laid, but further upgrading was not deemed cost-effective.
A second factor which hastened the line’s demise was the desire to redesign the road layout at Guyhirn (the station, for some reason, had an ‘e’ at the end of it!). This new road layout would be cheaper to implement if the railway was not ‘in the way’.
It’s not clear if this was a driver in closing the line, or one of the benefits of closing it, but the early 1980s was a better time to be a supporter of road transport (passenger and freight) than it was to be a supporter of rail transport.
So, in 1982, with the country still in a recession, with BR suffering from the unions and their numerous strikes, losing freight hand over fist to a lean road haulage operation, and with a costly line in need of modernisation but with insufficient traffic to support that modernisation, the writing was (inevitably) on the wall. Closure came on November 27 1982 - a month after the initial planned closure due to ‘consultation with the unions’. On a cold, foggy and depressing November day, 115 years of railway history ended.
After the line closed, parts of the level crossing equipment were quickly removed. The Up line to March was lifted in the spring of 1983, although the Down line was retained just in case there was a case for reopening the line as a single-track freight-only route for a couple more years. Of course, that never happened - and it would have been costly to do so given the removal of signals and level crossing equipment.
So, in the spring of 1985, the Down line was lifted. And by July the job was done and the trackbed was handed over to nature. However, there was little rush to remove signal boxes, platelayers’ huts and even signals - and many of these survive today.
Indeed, travel to Spalding tofday and you might be surprised to see what still remains of the line. In Spalding itself, the bridge which carried the line over the River Welland remains. You can still see where the rails were fitted, although on both sides the trackbed has been built on with roads or houses. Along the line, many of the old gatehouses still survive as private dwellings - invariably called ‘The Old Gatehouse’.
The trackbed continues southeast, and a section is now a short road leading up to the A16 bypass. The section just after here is ‘sort of’ walkable. Unlike many closed lines, little of this trackbed was turned into an accessible bridleway or footpath. This section, flanked either side by fields, is private property but is still accessible, although it soon gets overgrown. Acess to that signal post that still stands is really not possible… unless you are Bear Grylls.
The new road then crosses the line as it approaches Cowbit. Here the station, signal box and goods shed are all still standing. The station is now a house, and actually came up on the market a few years ago when the property was repossessed. The station still has both its platforms, and while the signal box is privately owned by a couple who are trying to turn it into a house itself, its presence adds a lovely feel to a station that hasn’t actually had a passenger for over 55 years.
Cowbit is a much bigger place now than when it lost its passenger service in 1961. Ironically, if the railway were still there, the village could possibly be big enough to support an open station - assuming the timetable made using it worthwhile.
Much of the trackbed in Cowbit itself is lost to development, but just south of the village it reappears and crosses the new road for a second time. It then heads off, albeit overgrown or now lost to farmland and therefore indistinguishable.
As the railway headed towards its next station at Postland, a small minor road crossed at Queen’s Bank. This level crossing did not even have a crossing keeper’s house, just a tiny hut which was removed in 1983. A hump in the road is the only reminder that there was once a double-track main line here.
At Postland, the closed station remains and is also now a house. But over the road, on the other side of the old level crossing, stands one of the surviving gems of the remnants - the signal box is not only intact (just), it still has its lever frame in place!
But before you get overly excited - it is now in such a state of disrepair that it is structurally unsound. A company selling plant and machinery now uses the old goods yard, and staff there told me it was unsafe to go inside it.
Like much of the line, the level crossing at Postland had manually operated gates right up until closure. But as you continue towards March, you come to the crossing at Dowsdale Bank, which was one of the few with automatic half-barriers. The old relay box used to control it remains as a reminder.
At nearby Shepeau Stow the crossing was operated by the public - essentially it was closed to road traffic unless a car wanted to cross, in which case they would ring the signalman at Postland for permission to proceed. Scarcity of rail traffic meant they would usually be able to cross - also, it was not an especially busy road.
The next station was French Drove. Again, the signal box remains standing, and is in a better condition. The level crossing is long gone, but the station building has lovingly been restored as a private house. The platforms remain, although the area inbetween has been filled in as a garden.
Beyond this station the trackbed widens, as this was the site of Up and Down freight loops. These could be used to hold trains on the approach to Whitemoor Yard.
Murrow was the next station, and the site of a flat crossing with the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway from Peterborough to Sutton Bridge - and ultimately King’s Lynn, Melton Constable and Norwich. That line closed in 1959, but the Joint Line outlived it by a couple of decades more. Here the signal box, of a much more modern 1940s design, survives as a private house. It was a replacement box for the original damaged in 1947.
On the approach to Guyhirn, much of the railway has been lost to road development both on the approach and through the village. Here the A47 road redesign ate up much of the trackbed, but it is still possible to see the stumps of the bridge that carried the line over the River Nene.
At nearby Ring’s End, the viaduct that carried the line for a few hundred metres is still very much intact, although the bridge section that crossed the A141 road has been removed. For the next couple of miles, the trackbed is pretty much as it was when those last trains ran.
The road off the A141 towards Chain Bridge crosses the line at the old level crossing at Twenty Foot River, some 13/4 miles from Guyhirn. Again, the old Crossing keeper’s house remains, and here the old home semaphore signal still stands (in remarkably good condition and still with its arm), although it’s not clear if the house owner has reinstated this, or if it was merely just left behind at lifting. Both are plausible!
There wasn’t a station here but there was a good shed, and this still stands. Indeed, the ramps from the loading bays - presumably for livestock - can still be seen. The rail bridge over the river has been removed, although there is now a footbridge there.
At Twenty Foot, just after crossing the river, you can still see the base of the signal box (called Twenty Feet River). This was built as recently as 1974 to replace the previous building from 1882 (Twenty Feet Sidings), which had started to sink into the Fens! Therefore, the new box only had an eight-year life. Just south of here the line spread out to Grassmoor and Whitemoor sidings.
The prison is another (large) obstruction on the old trackbed. However, just beyond it at Whitemoor the railway returns with an infrastructure yard which is at the end of a short branch from nearby March station. That station still retains the two platforms used by Spalding trains, albeit long bereft of track.
In the late 1990s, a buoyant Railtrack was issuing Network Management Statement documents each year. These were thick weighty tomes, but great though they were in showing that the railway had vision, the reality was that much of it was never going to happen.
In among these documents was the identification that the ECML was getting too congested, and that removing freight from the line would free up more paths for passenger trains. Part of this plan was to send freight trains via other routes, and upgrading the remaining section of the Joint Line - from Peterborough to Doncaster via Spalding and Sleaford - was seen as one key way to do this. And to be fair, Network Rail (the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the disgraced Railtrack) has done that.
But while Railtrack’s assertion that reopening the March to Spalding line would mean freight could avoid the busy bottleneck of Peterborough, it was never going to happen. It’s hard to understand just why it was even proposed - visits to Spalding and Guyhirn alone would prove the trackbed was too encroached and was lost forever.
Although still costly, a plan to build a flyover or dive-under at Peterborough would give the same result - trains could travel direct from March to Spalding without fighting for capacity to snake across the busy four-track ECML at Peterborough, causing interruptions to the passenger timetable.
And that is the plan. Consultations are taking place on a £100m scheme for a dive-under at Werrington Junction which would deliver just that - effectively a direct line from March to Spalding without having to touch the main ECML fast lines. If Network Rail’s plans come to fruition, this could be built in Control Period 6 (2019-24).
You could argue that to need to spend this money on this dive-under highlights what a folly it was to close the line and (more importantly) build on the trackbed. And there is an element of truth in that.
Admittedly, part of the reason the line closed was to improve the road at Guyhirn, but it seems (once again) that short-sightedness led to a short-term fix and cost-cutting exercise.
If the line had lasted just another three or four years, it would surely have made it to the present day. Remember it was still intact as late as 1985, by which time electrification of the ECML was under way. Did nobody think then to keep it, or to protect the trackbed, or was freight on rail really such a bad idea back then?
Closure of the line was a short-sighted, quick ‘win’ on BR’s 1980s balance book. Sadly, it was one that has been proven to have had severe long-term consequences - how useful would this route be now?
Still, it is nice to see so many more freight trains running through Spalding today, it’s just a shame they get held up when they get to Peterborough!
The last days
By November 1982, just a handful of trains ran on the line - three in each way, and not at the best of times to woo patronage. They were the 1006, 1153 and 1508 from March to Spalding, and 1238, 1444 and 1811 in the opposite direction, so if you lived in either town and were one of very few who wanted to commute to the other, unless you had flexible hours rail travel was pointless.
The last day was November 27 1982, and the final train was a Cravens Class 105 DMU on a Fakenham and Dereham Railway Society charter from Skegness to Cambridge. It left Spalding at 1836 and arrived at March at 1901, and then… that was that.
Earlier in the day, the last locomotive-hauled train had been another railtour, BR’s ‘Jointliner’ from Cleethorpes to Cambridge hauled by 40024 Lucania. This used the line in both directions.
The last scheduled locomotive-hauled passenger train on the line had been on October 2 1982, when 37086 worked the 0920 Yarmouth-Newcastle.
Back to that last day and 37167, hauling an empty sand train, was the last southbound locomotive-hauled train of any kind and the last freight on the route.
After November 27 1982, all traffic had to divert via Peterborough - which was soon to become a bottleneck, and continues to get ever more congested.
Traction on the line
The passenger traisn were typically worked by diesel multiple units, usually Derby Class 114 and Cravens '105' two-car sets. Summer Saturday trains brought pairs of Class 25s and Class 31s, '37s', '40s' and '47s'. On four occassions, pairs of '20s' appeared on the Derby-Yarmouth train.
Railtours brought Classes 40, ‘45’ and ‘55’ to the route in its last days, while a notable visitor on March 10 1979 was 50050 Fearless on a London Bridge to York railtour.
And then there was the one day each year when the line came into its own - the annual early-May Spalding flower show. This would attract extra trains, and those from the south usually came via March. Trains from the north would also unload their passengers, and owing to a shortage of sidings many would run empty to March for stabling. They also brought rare power to the town, such as Hastings diesel electric multiple units and Class 33s.
The most common traction for freight trains were ‘20s’, ‘31s’, ‘37s’, ‘40s’ and ‘47s’. But there was other variety - ‘25s’, ‘44s’, ‘45s’, ‘46s’ were all seen, especially on the Toton-Whitemoor trip, which was a good bet to produce a Class 44 right up to their final days of late 1980.
On November 23 1981 there was a very unusual working when 31324 hauled withdrawn Deltics 55004/011/018 from Stratford to York, via Cowbit, for cannibalisation.